A Tribe Of Troglodytes by Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson writes about a surreal moment at a Magic Band gig.

I was interested in something I saw in one of the links from this site–a photo from one John Petraitus taken of a Zappa/Beefheart concert in Bloomington, Illinois, May, 1975. My girlfriend and I were at the next show (or the one before?) in St. Louis. It’s been so long ago that I don’t remember much about the concert, but one thing will always stick out for me.

When the show finally began (after an interminable set by the band Styx featuring their unconvincing evocation of Jimi Hendrix with a psychedelic version of “America the Beautiful”) the house lights went down, and eerie green points of light like alien fireflies popped out all over the darkened stage. The sound of someone blowing a strange warbling melody on a soprano saxophone reverberated in the auditorium, and a single dark figure could just be seen moving slowly through a sort of backdrop made to look like tangled branches or vines in the gloom; the effect was of some weird forest shaman taking an evening stroll in the woods, meditatively blowing on his horn while pondering some deep weighty matter.

Suddenly, a tribe of troglodytes and other assorted malformed creatures appeared among the tangled undergrowth and began lumbering zombie-like toward the shaman, making as if to attack. They slowly drew in and surrounded the lone figure, who continued to play his horn with utter confidence, and just when the lurching attackers had tightened their knot around the shaman (revealed now as none other than the Great Man himself in a panama hat and long trailing scarves) he pointed his magic saxophone toward the nearest ones and began blowing forth a stream of unearthly notes, mowing them down. At the same instant, a green strobe light lit the scene in flashing stop-start action like a bizzare semblance of early movie photography, and one by one, the menacing troglodytes magically fell and were swept away like leaves in a slow-motion windstorm.

The whole thing had probably taken less than two minutes to produce, but the reaction to this wonderful scene was scary, almost apocalyptic. The kids sitting next to us (who had obviously come to see their heroes Styx and had no earthly idea what they had stumbled into) jumped to their feet and emitted a loud “Whoa ! !”, as did most of the audience, our own exclamations of surprise mixed with pleasure joining in with the general roar of incredulity. We, of course, knew what the Captain was capable of (or at least we thought we did), but it’s a little spooky when you’ve just witnessed something with a large crowd of people (most of whom have some recreational pharmaceutical percolating away in their system) and no one’s sure whether they should be transported with delight or frightened silly out of their brainpans.

I remember thinking at the time, that, metaphorically, the troglodytes were the members of Styx, and Beefheart, as the “Obieman, revered throughtout the boneknob land” was clearing the stage not only of them but all purveyors of bad music and those who represented a psychic threat to him as well, before he went on stage himself; but who knows? The rest of the show has faded from my memory to vague remembrances of certain songs and images. The Captain remained seated on a folding chair most of the time, seeming to be content to blow a little harp while Frank led the band through its paces. While it would have been nice to have showcased the Captain a little more than he did, the music was far from mundane, and Zappa’s band was great as usual. The whole thing just pales somehow in comparison to that opening.

I guess the Shaman in the Woods just shook everything else loose – or blew it away.

Joe Henderson

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